Diplomacy, politics, and practicality all factor into the argument against reversing Trump’s decision.
Rabat – Foreign policy experts and Morocco-watchers alike are wondering what the new Biden administration in Washington will do regarding Western Sahara. The United States’ new president has promised to undo much of his predecessor’s legacy.
Following his inauguration the newly elected president issued no fewer than an unprecedented 17 executive orders. The message is clear: Biden hopes to quickly erase many of Trump’s policies and signal that a new wind is blowing in the US capital.
How this will impact Western Sahara has been a topic of speculation ever since former US President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in his lame-duck session. Trump’s act earned him much praise in Morocco, but some in the US and the international community saw it as inadvisable and most importantly, reversible.
The sweeping manner in which Biden has attempted to right some of the wrongs of Trump’s reign clearly intends to send a message of change and progress. In his inauguration speech Biden called the day one of “renewal and resolve.” Yet he is hardly a radical politician prone to ideas out of the mainstream.
Pro-Polisario Senator James Inhofe questioned Biden’s pick for secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, about his intentions regarding Western Sahara during the first phase of his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, January 19. Austin stated that he thought the issue deserved a “closer look,” without committing to a position.
Biden’s preferred manner of diplomacy appears to closely align with that of the administration of Barack Obama. During the Obama years, the US appeared weary to involve itself in the conflict and progress stalled for several years while Moroccan diplomats worked to turn the tide.
The question remains as to whether Biden will apply a similar sweeping set of changes in foreign policy as he has done domestically. Biden could attempt to reverse the US decision regarding Western Sahara, arguing that it came in the waning days of the Trump presidency, upending years of US diplomacy.
Prior to Trump’s decision, the US did however already insist on a mutually acceptable solution, which meant supporting Morocco’s Autonomy Plan, to varying degrees in public and behind closed doors.
A resolve to reverse the historic decision could present Biden with a difficult task, as Morocco World News’ co-founder Samir Bennis explained in Foreign Policy.
Bennis wrote a detailed response to earlier opinions of notorious warhawk John Bolton and author Stephen Zunes, clarifying the history of the conflict and laying out the legal and diplomatic changes to the status quo because of Trump’s decision.
Over the past 15 years the diplomatic status of Western Sahara has changed significantly because of successive UN resolutions that have set new precedents Biden could be hesitant to overturn.
The UN has similarly not come out to oppose or revoke the status the US applied to Western Sahara, manifesting a new legal precedent in international law. The UN’s tacit support has created a situation that Biden is unlikely to want to upend.
Customary international law has changed the outdated self-determination narrative and has evolved toward an endorsement of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan, which aims to find a sustainable and just peace in the region.
If Biden decided to attempt to overturn Trump’s recognition he could face opposition from several influential sources of power in the US. For the Pentagon, Trump’s decision presented an opportunity to expand US influence in the Sahel and perhaps even establish a military base in the region. For the Israeli lobby in the US, a reversal could endanger new ties with Morocco.
Three important factors
Leaving aside the new legal reality, the long-standing US support for Morocco’s plan, and the evolution of the territory’s status, political decisions often boil down to available political capital and more practical matters.
Biden is unlikely to upend the Western Sahara decision for three important reasons that span the political, diplomatic, and practical dimensions of what such a reversal would entail.
On the political front, a Biden reversal on Western Sahara would likely pit Biden against the powerful Israeli lobby in the US. Furthermore, endangering ties with Morocco would likely meet opposition from the army of lobbyists representing the US arms industry, which could fear losing an important customer. The Pentagon is another important player that would likely want to expand ties with Morocco.
On the diplomatic front, changing the status of Western Sahara could lead to Biden’s administration offending a key strategic ally in the tumultuous Sahel region. Changing Western Sahara’s status would mean overturning diplomatic precedent and making other countries reluctant to make deals with the US, with diminished trust in continuity through administrations.
Another important factor is the practical side of such a decision. The new administration faces a dire economic crisis, a COVID-19 epidemic that has killed more than 400,000, and a country divided on partisan lines. Amid these domestic crises, Biden would have to reserve precious time on Western Sahara, an issue about which few of his supporters are concerned.
Much remains unclear about President Biden’s intentions regarding Western Sahara. Still, the diplomatic, political, and practical hurdles that such a reversal would present are likely to weigh into Biden’s decision on the Western Sahara issue.